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Congestion Pricing in the Global City

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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New York is set to become the first North American city to levy fees on drivers accessing downtown streets. Promoted originally by a business think tank and later championed by New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, the plan would charge private motorists $8 and truck drivers $21 to access Manhattan south of 86th Street from 6am to 6pm, Monday through Friday. Congestion pricing is being promoted as an environmental initiative by a broad swathe of organized interests in the city. But the determining motivation is concern over the standing of New York as the world’s premier global city. While it may deliver only marginal improvements to air quality, congestion pricing raises concerns over spatial justice in the city: the benefits will accrue to owners of downtown property, while the costs in time and money will fall on outer-borough and suburban working class commuters.

 Smog Layer Over Upstate New York, 2002 (NASA)
David Shapinsky, Smog Layer Over
Upstate New York, 2002 (NASA)
, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Congestion pricing is the controversial centerpiece of PlaNYC, the mayor’s vision of an environmentally sustainable, globally competitive city capable of accommodating almost one million more residents by the year 2030. As mayor Bloomberg stood beneath the Natural History Museum’s giant blue whale during the unveiling of PlaNYC, he characterized its 127 initiatives as “the broadest scale attack on the causes of global warming and environmental degradation that any city has ever undertaken.” In defending congestion pricing in particular, the Mayor spoke of the environmental injustice of abnormally high rates of asthma in Harlem and the Bronx. Though he did put a figure on how much traffic congestion costs the city economy – $13 billion a year – Bloomberg placed more emphasis on public health, taking care to mention asthma four times.Bloomberg reached across the political spectrum to sell his plan. To the commuters, the Mayor justified congestion pricing in the more conservative terms of structuring individual choice through market mechanisms. “Using economics to influence public behaviour is what this country was built on,” he said in his weekly radio programme. “It’s called capitalism.” And after all, to “put some of this stuff in perspective”, the access charge would be less than the price of a movie admission (1). Capitalism is to choice, the billionaire Mayor seemed to suggest with his analogy, as commuting to work every day is to going to the cinema.

Publicly, at least, this isn’t a debate about the desirability of promoting a competitive city. No interventions challenge this near-consensus view, and so congestion pricing as a global city strategy is only spoken of sotto voce. Instead, debate centers around two issues of more immediate concern to most New Yorkers: public health and social justice. The coalition formed to promote PlaNYC and congestion pricing, led most prominently by downtown big business (but which incorporates the city’s liberal civil society and labour movement as junior partners), is pushing all the green buttons. The coalition of small business owners and outer-borough legislators opposed to congestion pricing present it as a regressive tax unfair to working class commuters. “It’s basically a tax on the poor,” according to one small business representative. “For the rich people, it’s another latte.(2)”

The Production of Space

Historically, urban planning in New York City has been one long scramble of defending downtown space from threats to its valuation – congestion foremost among them. Congestion is the result of a contradiction which has formed over time between the organization of urban space and the uses to which it is put. Manhattan’s iconic gridiron, which extends 155 east-west streets across 12 north-south avenues, is an artifact of nineteenth-century social relations thrust into a position of centrality to twenty-first century capitalism. The grid was laid out at a moment in capitalist development when land had become an object of speculation but prior to the formation of a working class and the separation of work from home (3). The need to organize the commute between separate places of living and working played no part in its conception. Instead, the surveying of 2,028 blocks of identical size and proportions produced a highly abstract space that was uniquely suited to the definition of property rights and the buying and selling of real estate. The gridiron brought order to the affair, but it would eventually make reorganizing the space to accommodate the flows of a modern labour market especially difficult. When Swiss architect Le Corbusier visited the city in the 1930s, he famously declared the gridiron to be “perfect, in the age of the horse.(4)” The gridiron had already become a barrier to efficient circulation, a dysfunctional territory for capital, and now appeared socially archaic. But it was an archaic form which nevertheless enveloped the most modern, most highly valued office space in the world.

The subway system has been by far the most effective fix to Manhattan’s grid. The second fix was to de-industrialize the centre, freeing up street space and subway seats for the ranks of white collar employees in the rapidly growing global city industries of finance and business services. In the 1920s and 30s, it was thought that expressway development would serve as a third fix. This proved illusory. Although expressways built out the wider metropolitan region, they never penetrated Manhattan; the new auto approaches to the downtown simply disgorged more cars onto a street grid that had not significantly expanded in area since the nineteenth century. It was in New York that it first became apparent that organizing the commute into the central business district by private automobile is inconsistent with a strategy of increasing land values in the city core. Expressways pave over highly valued downtown land, and the congestion they induce wastes highly valued time.

Congestion pricing works as a global city strategy in separating low-value uses of the grid from high-value uses. It sets aside downtown streets for the ‘highest and best’ uses associated with the global city industries located in close proximity to one another in order to facilitate the face-to-face meetings of highly paid personnel. Congestion undermines the benefits of agglomeration and thus reduces the city’s desirability to firms with worldwide location options. New York is now debating congestion pricing because it has become apparent that London’s adoption of the scheme has made it a more competitive rival. “Anything that keeps New York from working as well as London threatens our economy,” according to a New York Daily News editorial. If Bloomberg is right to say that congestion pricing is about capitalism, this has little to do with the exercise of choice in the marketplace, but rather with producing a globally competitive city given the constraints of a pre-existing urban form.

Building Consent

The problem with congestion pricing is that it is not designed for the purposes claimed by its defenders. Ecological concerns have been important in mobilizing support for the idea, recalling French social theorist Henri Lefebvre’s astute observation in the early 1970s that the rationing of society’s new spatial scarcities would be legitimated in environmental terms (5). Despite the efforts of a bewildering array of interests promoting congestion pricing – neoliberal think tanks, left-led unions, downtown real estate and financial capital, environmentalist organizations, of course, chambers of commerce and good government groups – majority opinion remains stubbornly opposed. Only promises that congestion pricing will alleviate asthma rates and provide funds to allow for a capping of transit fares shift popular opinion in the other direction. But congestion pricing was not designed first to improve air quality or fund mass transit and there are good reasons to doubt that it will be effective in delivering on either. Hopes pinned on unintended consequences of public policy tend to remain unfulfilled.

Consider air quality. Most car trips in the metropolitan region of New York do not involve work trips into and out of Manhattan, and so would not be affected by pricing access to downtown streets. Those who do commute to Manhattan by car might very well respond to the pricing scheme by driving to the outside of the exclusion zone and taking mass transit from there to their final destinations, reducing car emissions only marginally while turning the outer-boroughs into parking lots. Furthermore, asthma is largely caused by the heavy particulate discharged by trucks. Goods have to reach Manhattan somehow, and in the absence of an alternative transportation infrastructure they will continue to be delivered by truck. Congestion pricing might restructure the scheduling of shipments outside of work hours, but it would not affect the total volume of trucking or the exhaust it produces. Asthma is particularly high in Harlem and the Bronx because the Cross-Bronx expressway was turned into a major trucking route after the port of Manhattan was displaced to free up space for global city interests – a matter of more than historical interest which Bloomberg neglected to mention in his speech at the Natural History Museum. A legitimate programme to reduce truck exhaust would return freight rail and industrial port activities to Manhattan.

This raises the question of spatial justice. Now in its third decade of gentrification, Manhattan has become unaffordable for working-class families. Forced to live at ever greater distances from their place of work – and beyond the limits of the city’s otherwise excellent subway system – workers in Manhattan’s central business districts face commutes which can last hours each day. Nevertheless, the city’s labour movement has supported congestion pricing with the understanding that the funds raised be spent on improving transit service to outlying areas of the city and on capping transit fares. But congestion pricing is an unfair, and inefficient, means of subsidizing mass transit. City figures show that a majority of car commuters into Manhattan earn less than $50,000 – not the privileged suburbanites of popular imagination. It is estimated, furthermore, that 40 percent of the money collected in congestion fees will be spent on administration. Bloomberg’s plan calls for downtown Manhattan to be blanketed by video cameras – a digital panopticon – in order to record drivers’ license plates, and calls for a separate bureaucracy to oversee the payment of fees. And within hours of a congestion pricing deal being worked out in Albany, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that bus and subway fares would be raised regardless. The labour movement’s support of congestion pricing has been important in legitimating the plan in the face of critics who point to the injustice of reducing congestion (and promoting global competitiveness) through regressive taxation. But it is unclear as yet what concessions it has won in return.

A legitimate project to reduce car and truck emissions in the city would look very different than the one offered by Bloomberg. It would seek to reduce car use in general, it would make transit (including the regional commuter lines) more affordable, and it would envision alternative means of freight delivery. But because organized interests in the city have now effectively accepted the global city agenda, these alternatives are not part of the debate. To find them, you have to go to the archives. A position paper written by the transit union in the 1960s, for example, proposes that all private cars be banned south of 96th Street and that subways be made free by levying heavier taxes on downtown real estate. This is an equitable, environmentally responsible plan that is just as feasible today – if not more so, since downtown property is grossly under-assessed – but which is inconsistent with the consensus formed around producing New York as a global city.


(1) Quoted in Rivera, Ray. “Bloomberg: It’s Called Capitalism.” New York Times. April 20. 2007: online article. 31 July 2007 <empirezone.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/04/20/bloomberg-its-called-capitalism>.
(2) Steve Barrison, executive president of the Small Business Congress, quoted in Schuerman, Matthew. “Congestion Pricing Foes Turn on the Espresso Maker.” New York Observer.23May 2007: online article. May 31, 2007 <www.observer.com/2007/congestion-pricing-foes-turn-espresso-maker>.
(3) Bender, Thomas. The Unfinished City. New York: New Press, 2002.
(4) Quoted in Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli, 1994.
(5) Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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